In a world where statements about higher education are often less than fully informed, it is important that the dialogue between universities and the relevant regulatory body – in Ireland’s case the Higher Education Authority – is conducted with a degree of sensitivity and mutual respect. Mostly that has been the case, even where there are disagreements. Therefore I found it somewhat startling when the new chair of the HEA, John Hennessy, was recently reported by the Irish Independent as saying that some academics in the arts and humanities ‘”hold their nose” at the idea of working with industry’. He went on, apparently, to suggest that ‘the humanities have a problem in communicating their contribution to the wider society – a problem the sciences do not have.’
It may of course be that the HEA chair had some specific evidence for these assertions that the newspaper did not include in the report. It may also be that he had more detailed proposals as to how and where the arts and humanities should be engaging with industry where currently they are not or where their communication with society falls down. But if so, it would be helpful to see some of this evidence and assess the proposals. As it is, my fear is that the comments, which he made on the occasion of a public lecture, reinforce the tendency to make unsubstantiated judgements about academic work and use these as a basis for new regulatory restrictions and controls.
It cannot be a matter of surprise that the arts and humanities have less interaction (but hardly none) with industry than is the case with science or engineering. However, in my experience they often work closely with the performing arts, with educational bodies, with voluntary organisations, with cultural and tourism bodies, and so forth. Accusing the arts of not working with industry is in some ways like accusing biochemists of not working with the Abbey Theatre.
John Hennessy’s appointment has been welcomed by many, and it is hoped that he will oversee a well judged and effective cooperation with the academic community in Ireland. But it might be better if the patterns of this cooperation were established a little better before he moves to launch public criticism of some sections of higher education without much visible evidence to back it up. I suspect that the arts and humanities can always usefully review their interaction with the wider society, including industry, but it is better to stimulate such a review in a somewhat more sensitive and less caricatured way. I hope that a constructive dialogue will be more typical of what is to come.